Graham Elliot's cheddar risotto. Mine didn't look this pretty.

Don’t you think Graham Elliot should’ve been cast in The Hunger Games as a TV chef in the Capitol? These days the bow-tied one may be more known for playing good cop on MasterChef than he is for his food. When was the last time he was associated with a dish that pervaded the gustatory zeitgeist like the foielipop? But the dictates of celebrity cheffery demand a cookbook, and now there’s Cooking Like a Master Chef, a slick 100-recipe volume interspersed with plenty of food porn and shots of the slimmed-down, postbariatric Elliot frolicking with his family like a regular joe. There are lots of accessible recipes with occasional jarring, intriguing twists on the familiar (Chinese forbidden fried rice, strip steak with Cabernet jam), and many of the chef’s old signature dishes are there—the truffled popcorn, the buffalo chicken with beer foam, the deconstructed Caesar, the lobster corn dog, the short-rib stroganoff.

Alas, no foielipop. But there is the cheddar cheese risotto, a variation of a dish that got lots of play when Elliot was cooking at Avenues, and then at his eponymous Graham Elliot, mostly for the Cheez-Its he used as a garnish. This sort of nostalgic, irreverent accent, like the Pop Rocks on the foielipop, was one of signals Elliot was sending back in the day that he wasn’t a chef bound to stuffy old fine-dining conventions. Punk rock, dude. Yet Elliot told Food & Wine some time back that he no longer tries to get “goofy” with this dish, and he’s since 86’d the Cheez-Its. You’ve changed, maaaan.

It’s still pretty complicated—with bacon “powder,” glazed pearl onions, julienned apples, and a grenadine-apple peel reduction, which is weird because the chef calls for water instead of stock in this risotto. I know, using water has been endorsed by esteemed culinary killjoys like Mark Bittman, but come on. That’s how monks make risotto. I used chicken stock. I also used a Pom pomegranate-juice reduction instead of grenadine. I’m still here to talk about it. 

And for the leftovers: risotto cakes, dipped in egg wash, rolled in panko, and fried until golden in the rendered fat from the bacon powder, each one containing a single, crunchy cheesy surprise 

Cheddar risotto cakesCredit: Mike Sula

Graham Elliot’s Cheddar Cheese Risotto

Serves four to six

Writes Elliot: “Aww, yeah. This is a fun rice dish that was inspired by a road trip through Wisconsin. We all know and love classic risotto, made with Parmesan cheese, and so I thought, “Hey! Let’s celebrate the Midwest by using Wisconsin cheddar instead.” It was a good idea. I dress it up a little with bacon “powder,” some glazed onions, and apples and chives. The bacon and the onions require some advance planning, but once you get them out of the way, the risotto is easy.” 

Prep time: About 35 minutes, plus drying and resting.
Cooking time: About 1 hour

Bacon Powder
4 slices thick-cut bacon, chopped into small pieces

Apple garnish

2 Gala or similar firm, sweet apples, peeled, cored, and julienned (reserve the apple peelings)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup grenadine
½ cup apple cider vinegar
¼ cup packed brown sugar

Glazed onions

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups peeled pearl onions
3 tablespoons hard cider

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup minced onions
2 cups arborio rice
3 cups dry white wine
4 ounces Wisconsin cheddar cheese, shredded (about one cup)
2 ounces mascarpone (about ¼ cup)
Salt and coarsely ground black pepper
1 bunch chives, finely chopped, for garnish

1. For the bacon powder, in a small frying pan, slowly cook the bacon over medium-low heat. Spoon the fat off and discard as the bacon cooks. When the bacon browns, use a slotted spoon to transfer the bacon to a fine-mesh sieve or chinois to drain a little more. Spread the bacon pieces on paper towels and allow the bacon to air-dry for two to three hours.

2. Grind the bacon pieces in a spice or coffee grinder. Spread the powder on paper towels and let it air-dry for at least six hours. The powder can be made up to two days ahead and stored in a lidded container at room temperature until ready to use.

3. For the apple garnish, in a small bowl, toss the julienned apples with the lemon juice. Add some cold water to cover the apples and set aside for up to four hours.

4. In a small saucepan, combine the grenadine, vinegar, and brown sugar with the reserved apple peelings. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce the heat, and simmer for about five minutes, or until the syrup has reduced to the consistency of honey. Transfer the syrup to a blender and puree until smooth. Set aside until needed.

5. For the glazed onions, in a large saute pan, melt the butter over medium-high heat. When hot, cook the pearl onions for about 15 minutes, or until browned and tender.

6. Add the hard cider, reduce the heat to medium, and cook for about 30 minutes longer, or until the onions are cooked through. Lift the onions from the cooking liquid and set aside, covered to keep warm, until needed.

7. For the risotto, in a large saucepan, bring about three cups of water to a boil. Reduce the heat so that it’s barely simmering but is very hot.

8. In a large, deep pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat and saute the minced onions for four to five minutes, or until translucent. Add the rice and stir with a wooden spoon to mix well with the onions. Cook for five minutes longer.

9. Reduce the heat to medium low and add one cup of the wine, stirring the rice and wine continuously with the wooden spoon. When the first cup of wine has been absorbed by the rice, add another cup. Stir the rice and wine, and add the final cup of wine when the rice has absorbed the second cup. As you stir, the rice will release its natural starches, which help absorb the liquid.

10. Begin adding the hot water in ¼-cup increments, stirring all the while. When you have added about one cup of the hot water, start tasting the rice and when it’s al dente and has a little toothiness, stop adding water. This entire process should take about 20 minutes. Keep the hot water on the stove.

11. Add the cheddar and mascarpone to the hot risotto. Stir to allow the cheese to melt into the rice. Gently stir in the glazed onions. Season with salt and pepper. (Make sure you use enough pepper, which helps cut through the flavors of the dish.)

12. Divide the risotto among four to six serving plates or shallow bowls. Drain and pat dry the julienned apples and garnish each serving with the apples, chives, and bacon powder. Spoon the pureed apple peelings around the outside of the dish.

Copyright © 2015 by Team Alliot from COOKING LIKE A MASTER CHEF by Graham Elliot published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.